Thursday, August 30, 2012

Vacation's over

Was far too short.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

An insightful remark

I'm almost glad Nirmukta accidentally used a quotation from Chally Kacelnik without attribution, since I missed it the first time and their apology was my first exposure to it.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The wrong reasons?

Such a strange op-ed by Vadim Nikitin (or maybe not - it is the NYT, after all):

From Madonna to Bjork, from the elite New Yorker to the populist Daily Mail, the world united in supporting Russia’s irreverent feminist activists Pussy Riot against the blunt cruelty inflicted on them by the state....

Yet there is something about the West’s embrace of the young women’s cause that should make us deeply uneasy, as Pussy Riot’s philosophy, activism and even music quickly took second place to its usefulness in discrediting one of America’s geopolitical foes.

Hm. I'm not really convinced of this, and no evidence is provided in support of the claim. Since "the West" isn't really defined, it's hard to say....

Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, are dissident intellectuals once again in danger of becoming pawns in the West’s anti-Russian narrative?

OK. It's always worthwhile to consider how your activism might be coopted by reactionaries, it's true. Human rights activists especially should take steps to avoid being used and resist prepackaged narratives and an imperial "humanitarian savior" self-image. Again, it doesn't strike me as the case here, but I'm not really familiar enough with this situation to judge.

But there was already something in this paragraph that had me tilting my head and furrowing my brow, and what follows seemed to confirm it:

Back in the ’70s, the United States and its allies cared little about what Soviet dissidents were actually saying, so long as it was aimed against the Kremlin. No wonder so many Americans who had never read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s books cheered when he dissed the Soviet Union later felt so shocked, offended and even betrayed when he criticized many of the same shortcomings in his adoptive homeland. Wasn’t this guy supposed to be on our side?

Whose side? To whom is this addressed?

Using dissidents to score political points against the Russian regime is as dangerous as adopting a pet tiger: No matter how domesticated they may seem, in the end they are free spirits, liable to maul the hand that feeds them.

Wait, what? Who is the audience of this?

Pussy Riot and its comrades at Voina come as a full package: You can’t have the fun, pro-democracy, anti-Putin feminism without the incendiary anarchism, extreme sexual provocations, deliberate obscenity and hard-left politics.

Not me, obviously. :) (And I'd like to inform everyone that anarchism is all of the former.)

Unless you are comfortable with all that (and I strongly suspect 99 percent of Pussy Riot’s fans in the mainstream media are not), then standing behind Pussy Riot only now, when it is obviously blameless and the government clearly guilty, is pure opportunism.

Huh? I'd think that if this is addressed to liberals, they would want to support people subject to the "blunt cruelty" of an authoritarian regime, when they are obviously blameless and the government clearly guilty. This would seem to be fairly basic liberalism. Are people who support human rights supposed to require liberal purity tests? Should I, as an atheist and opponent of religion, not support the rights of religious people jailed for blasphemy? Is he suggesting that 99% of these people in the media don't support human rights?

And just like in the bad old days, such knee-jerk yet selective support for Russian dissidents — without fully engaging with their ideas — is not only hypocritical but also does a great disservice to their cause.

First, again, I'm not sure who he's talking to who must agree with the ideas of anyone whose rights they're defending. Second, so now he's worried about their cause? Their cause, as I understand it, includes not being persecuted. This should be supported by anyone who opposes persecution. How on earth is it hypocritical to support the human rights of people whose every political tactic and goal you don't agree with?

A former Soviet dissident and current member of the anti-Putin opposition, Eduard Limonov, knows such cynicism too well. Thrown out of the Soviet Union and welcomed in New York as a Cold War trophy, Limonov soon learned that it wasn’t the dissent part that the United States loved about Soviet dissidents, but their anti-communism. A bristly and provocative anti-Soviet leftist, he got to work doing what he did best — taking on the establishment — and quickly found himself in hot water again, this time with the Americans. Limonov concluded that “the F.B.I. is just as zealous in putting down American radicals as the K.G.B. is with its own radicals and dissidents.”

The comparison is overdrawn, but sure. Anyone who expects anything else from the FBI is ignorant or deluded.

But so what? Who's "the United States" here? Madonna?

At the core of much of the media fever over Pussy Riot lies a fundamental misunderstanding of what these Russian dissidents are about. Some outlets have portrayed the case as a quest for freedom of expression and other ground rules of liberal democracy. Yet the very phrase “freedom of expression,” with its connotations of genteel protest as a civic way to blow off some steam while life goes on, is alien to Russian radical thought. The members of Pussy Riot are not liberals looking for self-expression. They are self-confessed descendants of the surrealists and the Russian futurists, determined to radically, even violently, change society.

What the hell? So they're not genteel liberals. No kidding. Why does he think defending their freedom of expression has to be based on a misunderstanding?

Anyone who has bothered to see them beyond their relevance as anti-Kremlin proxies will know that these young people are as contemptuous of capitalism as they are of Putinism. They are targeting not just Russian authoritarianism, but, in Tolokonnikova’s words, the entire “corporate state system.” And that applies to the West as much as to Russia itself.

I may swoon.

It includes many of the fawning foreign media conglomerates covering the trial, like Murdoch’s News Corp., and even such darlings of the anti-Putin “liberal opposition” establishment as the businessman and anti-corruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny.

So this is addressed to the corporate media and the "liberal opposition" establishment? He's telling them it's not in their interests to support PR? I agree that it's risky for them to give attention to people who oppose the corporate state system (I'll note that this is the reverse of the problem hinted at in the introduction: that liberals and leftists supporting PR can become pawns of the US government; as such, it's the opposite of a problem).

But it's weird how the audience of this piece appears to change from paragraph to paragraph, while a thread of "Think twice before supporting them!" runs throughout.

Pussy Riot’s fans in the West need to understand that their heroes’ [?] dissent will not stop at Putin; neither will it stop if and when Russia becomes a “normal” liberal democracy. Because what Pussy Riot wants is something that is equally terrifying, provocative and threatening to the established order in both Russia and the West (and has been from time immemorial): freedom from patriarchy, capitalism, religion, conventional morality, inequality and the entire corporate state system.


We should only support these brave women if we, too, are brave enough to go all the way.

That's ridiculous.


$2 million, please.

"We Talk To The Philosopher Who Will Receive $5 Million To Study Immortality":

...We’ll look at near death experiences both in western cultures and throughout the world and really look at what they’re all about and ask the question — do they indicate something about an afterlife...?


...But then there’s a lot of analytical work where we can ask philosophical questions about the meaning of the experiences. Do they indicate glimpses of an afterlife


...or are they delusions?


(As this is a subset of the "research questions," I'll settle for a mere $1 million.)


First I would say the Templeton Foundation is doing very important philanthropic work because they are stepping into a big void. There’s very little money for the humanities provided by governments. Who else has the money and the interest to support these great questions of human interest? I might even say it’s inappropriate for governments to ask citizens to support this kind of research.

It's totally appropriate for a private foundation with a rightwing, religious agenda, though. What could go wrong?

Further I should say that in my experience [Fischer sits on the board of the Templeton Foundation] I have seen no pressure by Templeton to go in one direction or another or to tilt results.

LOL. Don't ever change, Templeton.

Psychology woo at Columbia U.

"Merging Spirituality and Clinical Psychology at Columbia."

Mainstream psychology programs traditionally exist in the realm of academic language and empirical fact, keeping the supernatural at arm’s length. But in January, Columbia began a spirituality concentration in its clinical psychology master’s program, and last month, the university created a broader program, the Spirituality and Mind-Body Institute, to conduct research and host colloquia.

There were already institutes around the country — like the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and Sofia University, until last month known as the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, in Palo Alto, Calif. — teaching from similar perspectives, as well as faith-based universities that teach psychology in particular religious contexts. But Columbia is the first Ivy League university to develop a master’s concentration in spiritual psychology.

...They say their teaching is rooted in, among other things, Buddhist meditation and philosophy, the work of Carl Jung, “ancient-Judeo-Christian traditions” and insights drawn from quantum physics.

“This takes it beyond simply the analytics of physics and says that love is in the fabric of the universe,” Dr. Miller said, sounding more Deepak Chopra than Freud. “We can grow healthy and move past suffering if we don’t simply look at ourselves as isolated but look at ourselves as part of the greater consciousness of love.”

The opening bit about the grad student, Buddhist singing bowl, and homeless men reads like satire. Offensive on so many levels.

The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals

“You can no longer say that we did not know.” – Philip Low

It appears to have passed under a number of radars, but last month the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and Non-Human Animals was held in Cambridge, UK, closing with the signing (witnessed, for some reason, by Steven Hawking*) of the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals, which reads in part:

We declare the following: “The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

The site – scroll down on the home page - offers several videos of the presentations. I’ve watched the one by David Edelman, “Through the Eyes of an Octopus: An Invertebrate Model for Consciousness Studies,” which seemed slightly disjointed (though this may be due to my lack of background knowledge and context) but interesting.

Certainly worthy of note is that person asking the last question in the Q&A refers to another conference participant, Christof Koch, and his statement that he’s become a vegetarian, and asks Edelman if he still eats octopuses. He replies that in fact the insights gained through his research have affected him: calamari hasn’t passed his lips in six years. Similarly, if I’m reading this exchange correctly – which I might not be, since I don’t really know Portuguese specifically – Philip Low has become a vegan as a result of his work. In all of these cases, then, it appears that scientific knowledge has influenced ethical choices, which is as it should be. (It should go without saying that I’m not commenting on any of their views on other matters, about which I know almost nothing.) I’d be interested to hear about the rest of the signers of the declaration….

*And recorded by 60 Minutes, so I assume they’re doing a story about it.

PHR to offer training in recognizing victimization

This September 22nd and 23rd in Washington, DC, Physicians for Human Rights will offer two training sessions in recognizing the signs of torture and other human rights abuses:

The need for this type of medical training is critical. The US Office of Refugee Resettlement estimates that 500,000 survivors of torture live in the United States today. Torture survivors live in communities across the US, both urban and rural.

Special medical training to recognize and understand the consequences of human rights abuses is no longer a niche specialty only for clinicians working with asylum seekers. Such training is necessary for all physicians, psychologists, nurses, and social workers determined to aid their patients effectively. Because the majority of torture injuries are chronic, special training is imperative to ensure clinicians can adequately provide the comprehensive care that torture victims desperately need.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Benjamin Dangl, Dancing with Dynamite

This book deals with the dances between today’s nominally left-leaning South American governments and the dynamic movements that helped pave their way to power in Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Brazil, and Paraguay. The discussion surrounding the question of changing the world through taking state power or remaining autonomous has been going on for centuries. The vitality of South America’s new social movements, and the recent shift to the left in the halls of government power, make the region a timely subject of study within this ongoing debate. Though often overlooked in contemporary reporting and analysis on the region, this dance is a central force crafting many countries’ collective destiny. (KL 153-158)

Benjamin Dangl’s 2010 Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America

offers an accessible overview of political struggles in seven Latin American countries as they’ve developed over the past few decades. It’s more a journalistic than a scholarly work, written for a general audience of activists and others on the Left and seeking primarily to respond to immediate practical and political rather than more abstract scholarly or theoretical debates. I recommend it for anyone looking to familiarize themselves with recent history and contemporary dynamics in this part of the world and to better understand what’s at stake within these nations and globally.

In a refreshing and much needed twist, the book’s protagonists are the (coalitions of) social justice movements in these countries as they negotiate a political landscape in which, following decades of rightwing rule, leftist or relatively more sympathetic populist governments have been successful.* I do wish he’d paid more attention to the role of the US in the internal politics of these countries - not only in support for the politicians, parties, movements, media, and repressive policies and actions of the Right, but also within the antistatist/antiauthoritarian Left itself (a situation which of course makes the choices for these movements even more complicated and perilous). It’s always a delicate balance for those who want to turn the focus away from the traditional subjects – Great Men (and occasionally Women), North and South – and show neglected local movements as real and effective political forces; on one side is the danger of underemphasizing the powerful influence of the US (and Canada) on domestic politics in these countries, on the other of implying that political actors in Latin America are mere puppets or capable only of reacting to powerful corporations and governments rather than independently shaping their history. Since there are a number of people writing about the role of the US, Canadian, and other foreign governments and corporations in Latin American politics, it’s probably best for Dangl to lean toward the former. (And I really like that he closes the book with a discussion of the relationship between these bold movements and activists in the US inspired by their aims and tactics.** More recently he’s written about connections with the Occupy movement.)

In any case, as an anarchist who’s made similar arguments over the years, I’m, unsurprisingly, right on board with his perspective and his thesis:

Many South American movements make revolution a part of everyday life, not something to be postponed for an electoral victory or the seizure of state power. While they may not define themselves as such, a number of these movements are anarchist in action and belief…. For movements in South America that engage the state, the relationship involves a tightrope walk between cooptation and genuine collaboration. Many times, however, cooperation with the state leads to the demobilization of social movements…. When facing such challenges, according to Uruguayan analyst Raúl Zibechi, it is important for movements to remain true to their own agenda, and not water down their demands to align with the state. Movements must expand their power, potential, spaces, and capacities.13 However, expanding power doesn’t need to mean becoming a part of the state’s political or electoral process; rather, it can mean working to become a sustainable movement that can weather changing political climates. (KL 172-186)

(It’s important to note that he immediately makes clear that anti-poverty and other such government programs are valuable and important, and that he’s by no means endorsing a libertarian model: “This book is based on the belief that public-run services are by definition more accountable than commercial, for-profit businesses or corporate run services, and in many cases, vital for survival. The process of negotiating with current left-leaning governments has posed challenges to social movements; but the region’s history demonstrates that multinational corporations and right-wing governments pushing through neoliberal policies have typically been even more devastating” (KL 194-197).)

Especially relevant to this year’s US presidential elections, Dangl refers to a 2008 article by the late Howard Zinn, “Election Madness.” In it, Zinn writes:

No, I’m not taking some ultra-left position that elections are totally insignificant, and that we should refuse to vote to preserve our moral purity. Yes, there are candidates who are somewhat better than others, and at certain times of national crisis (the Thirties, for instance, or right now) where even a slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of life and death.

I’m talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.

But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.

Let’s remember that even when there is a “better” candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore.

I miss Howard Zinn.

*The recent administrative coup in Paraguay signifies a retrenchment.

**I should note that these aims and tactics aren’t as new as many books suggest. The global history of radical activism spans centuries, over which tactics have been shared, modified, and adapted across movements and continents. I would love for this history to be better known.

Interlude - For the Summer

If that's success,...

Here's a helpful report from Al Jazeera's Fault Lines situating current events in Honduras - particularly related to the so-called War on Drugs - within the context of recent history:

An update: Some US aid to the Honduran police has been suspended...and apparently redirected to forces controlled by the US military.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

WikiLeaks, Stratfor, and the Assange distraction

While many are focused on the vicissitudes of the Julian Assange case, I should post briefly about WikiLeaks and the Global Intelligence Files. The site went back up a couple of days ago after being inaccessible for a while to a DDoS attack. This followed upon WikiLeaks’ publication over the past two weeks of documents related to Stratfor and TrapWire. There are disagreements over how concerned people should be about TrapWire specifically (here’s what seems a more balanced piece), while others contend that the issue is "not the surveillance, it’s the sleaze."

It’s also that this whole corporate-political business is shadowy as all hell. I’ve read through several of the recently released emails, and they’re…interesting. But even they shouldn’t necessarily divert attention from earlier Stratfor revelations or WikiLeaks documents generally.

I linked to a description of Stratfor’s efforts with regard to Bhopal and the Yes Men in a footnote to a recent post, but they deserve another mention. Back in February, the Yes Men reported:

WikiLeaks begins to publish today over five million e-mails obtained by Anonymous from "global intelligence" company Stratfor. The emails, which reveal everything from sinister spy tactics to an insider trading scheme with Goldman Sachs..., also include several discussions of the Yes Men and Bhopal activists. (Bhopal activists seek redress for the 1984 Dow Chemical/Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal, India, that led to thousands of deaths, injuries in more than half a million people, and lasting environmental damage.)

After detailing some of this activity, they note:

Perhaps most entertainingly of all, the email trove reveals that Stratfor's "Confederation Partners"—an unethical alliance between Stratfor and a number of mainstream journalists—are referred to informally within Stratfor as its "Confed Fuck House." (Another discovery: Coca Cola was spying on PETA. More such gems are sure to surface as operatives sift through the 5.5 million emails.)…

Many of the documents released in recent months also relate to Latin America (including the Honduran coup), and people there have analyzed the information and some of the implications of their release for Latin American politics.

It’s tempting to take the media’s lead and narrowly follow the legal travails of Assange and associated diplomatic maneuverings, but this is to some extent an unfortunate distraction from the content of the WikiLeaks materials.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Rape Humorists of Honduras

Adrienne Pine shares these comic stylings from a mainstream Honduran paper. The first joke manages to work in both misogyny and racism.

(As I've been doing in the context of arguments about rape "humor" in the US, I'll link to this earlier post.)

Homophobes of Lebanon

In another case involving doctors and power, Human Rights Watch calls on Lebanon to stop "tests of shame" - anal exams of men charged with homosexuality:*

Lebanese public prosecutors often order invasive and abusive, anal examination procedures for men suspected of homosexual sex, Human Rights Watch said. The head of the Lebanese Doctor’s Syndicate, Dr. Sharaf Abu Sharaf, issued a directive on August 8 calling for an end to anal examinations, stating that they are medically and scientifically useless in determining whether consensual anal sex has taken place and that they constitute a form of torture. He added that they also violate article 30 of the Lebanese law on medical ethics, which prohibits doctors from engaging in harmful practices.

The tests also violate international standards against torture, including the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Lebanon has ratified. The U.N. Committee Against Torture, in its 2002 review of Egypt, investigated the issue of forensic anal examinations and called on the government “to prevent all degrading treatment on the occasion of body searches.”

The tests are also carried out in violation of professional medical principles, including those of the World Medical Association and the UN Principles of Medical Ethics Relevant to the Role of Health Personnel, Particularly Physicians, in the Protection of Prisoners and Detainees Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

...As part of its obligation to respect the private lives and personal liberties of individuals, the Lebanese government should end these tests of shame and repeal laws criminalizing consensual sex between adults, including article 534, Human Rights Watch said.

*This is one of those reports that make it impossible for me to say honestly that nothing surprises me any more. I see it and think, "Really? That's a thing people do? That's a policy?"

Islamist Jerks of Tunisia

Tunisia's seen demonstrations this week as women have fought official demotion from equal to complementary to men.

Meanwhile, campaigns by Islamist jerks threaten two Tunisian Olympians.

Merle Hoffman on Book TV

She's a character. There's a Kindle version of her book, Intimate Wars,

and I'll likely read it. One of the more interesting aspects of the talk is her description of how her activism for reproductive rights has been linked to her medical activism - her work for patients' rights and "patient power." "Flushed with frustration after hearing yet another horror story from one of my patients in the counseling room," she writes,

I arranged for one of the counselors to stay with her while I rushed to my desk and started to write, my anger spilling out into my pen.

Patients have rights:

— The right to question your doctor.

— The right to know the background, affiliation, and training of your physician.

— The right to be advised of the reasons for medicines prescribed for you.

— The right to privacy in your consultations with your doctor and the right of confidentiality of records of your treatment.

— The right to the security and knowledge that the choice of treatments and what happens to your body is up to you.

— The right not to be intimidated by the props of medical power, i.e. fancy offices, big desks, and white coats.

— The right to regard physicians and the medical establishment as a vehicle, a resource for your own health needs.

— The right to know that rarely is there a single, unchanging medical truth. The right to be informed of current medical changes.

— The right to be assertive enough to ask what tests are being performed. Why? What do they cost? What other diagnostic choices do I have?

— The right to be in touch with options that offer divergent or philosophically different theories of treatment than the one that is being offered by your physician.

— The right to see your medical records at any time and the freedom to seek another opinion.

— Above all, the knowledge that the right of choice does exist and should be exercised.

There's an important intersection here, I think, with the psych rights movement.

Anyway, well worth watching (including the Q&A).

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Good people can disagree

So Obama's expressed his opposition to the Boy Scout gay ban (while not resigning as honorary president of the organization), and their response is that "good people can disagree."

Fine. Let's stipulate that good people can disagree on the subject. (In fact, I don't care whether those who support the ban are "good people," or how they even define goodness in the first place.)

It's evasive bullshit. The subject is the morality of the policy. The policy is immoral. It's bigoted and harmful. Supporting bigoted and harmful policies is bad regardless of who does it.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012